AJ Capital Partners studies Graduate Hotels opportunities in the UK

Graduate Hotels Oxford reception
Graduate Hotels Oxford reception. (Graduate Hotels)

Graduate Hotels is a brand that is quickly becoming quite familiar in the United States, at least in university towns. Created and owned by AJ Capital Partners (the AJ is short for Adventurous Journeys), Graduate curates its American hotels to match the atmosphere of the college campus by which it exists. 

Every property celebrates the heady optimism of the good old school days and cultivates the spirit of each community through cultural and athletic nods to a university’s heritage and history. 

Since its beginnings in 2014, Graduate has opened 30 hotels across the country, in such notable college towns as Columbus, Ohio (Ohio State University); Ann Arbor, Michigan (the University of Michigan); Berkeley, California (University of California, Berkeley) and Providence, Rhode Island (Brown University). 

According to Phillip Allen, Chief Development Officer, International Markets for AJ Capital Partners, Graduate was developed because the company discovered a wide-open niche in the market. It appeared that many sizable college towns lacked lodging options in terms of high-quality, boutique hotels. 

“Supply had traditionally been constrained, and focused on lower quality products,” said Allen.

University towns were particularly attractive because typically in the United States, new businesses and research facilities locate themselves near major campuses in order to take advantage of the academic talent pool  Plus, there are those alumni who are always coming back for special events. 
 
Of course, the American approach to university life (think football, tailgating and fraternities and sororities) is very different from most college experiences outside of the United States. So can a brand based, in part, on all-American rah-rah nostalgia, translate to other countries?

In 2018, Allen, not yet working for AJ Capital Partners, nonetheless approached Graduate executives with the idea of expanding the brand into Europe. He discovered the company had already been considering the idea, and so he was brought on to manage the international development side of the business. 

The whole Graduate concept design is based on fabulous university communities and their history. That’s why England’s Oxford and Cambridge universities were the logical places to start looking. 

“We are certainly aware of the fact that U.K. campuses are not sports-focused like in America, so we take pains to stress other college-related themes at these properties,” he said. 
 
Having chosen the site of their freshmen efforts, Davis started looking around for existing hotels that could be transitioned into Graduate’s zeitgeist. 

The first acquisition was in Cambridge. Set on the River Cam, the property has been designed with nods to the university’s architecture and to on-campus discoveries like the DNA double helix. 

In 2019, AJ Capital Partners purchased its property in Oxford, now called The Randolph Hotel by Graduate Hotels. The design also parallels the architecture found on campus, and adds in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland touches (author Lewis Carroll lived in Oxford and matriculated at Christ Church College). After a few years of renovations, both hotels opened under the Graduate banner this summer. 

Once the Cambridge and Oxford properties were acquired, Allen started looking north to Scotland. There, he discovered McDonald Hotels & Resorts was looking to sell some of its assets. But the locations didn’t necessarily match the Graduate modus operandi. 

“We went to the U.K. to expand Graduate and stumbled into a new concept, a golf concept,” said Allen. “It was a bit of dumb luck and a bit of strategy.”

Rusacks St Andrews, overlooking the 18th hole of the city’s famed Old Course, was just “too perfect as a golf hotel. So we kept it as a golf hotel, and then started planning to expand a golf concept (since dubbed Marine & Lawn) in the United Kingdom right away.” 

The golf-focused Marine & Lawn brand now has outposts in Troon and North Berwick in Scotland. 

As for what’s next after this swirl of activity, Allen said: “Throughout the last year, we pushed pause on new international acquisitions as we were launching a totally new brand and the Graduate in a new country and acquired five hotels in a relatively short period of time. 

“We had a lot on the plate in the midst of the pandemic. So, we want to get everything up and running and launch both brands in the most impactful way. And then, by fall, we’ll be back in the investment market.”   

For Graduate Hotels, that will largely mean focusing on UK markets that are home to Russell Group universities. For Marine & Lawn, that means looking around the British Isles for existing golf hotels that are operating below par under current ownership.